High times at Elsecar Low Colliery
December was deceptively mild as the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery and regular volunteers arrived for the final open day and working party weekend of 2016.
Site Manager Glen and Friends Chair Steve were joined by John, Nigel, Alan and Chris as the crew continued work on site, clearing rubble, logging felled timber and generally keeping things tidy. Equally everyone was keen to see the latest progress on the removal and restoration of the winding engine house roof.
Colourful construction on a grey day
The earthy muted tones of the pit yard were lifted by the striking blue timber roof battens, leaning up against the red-yellow painted scaffolding poles. Looking up at the pitched roof line, the dyed horizontal battens contrast with the grey of the weatherproof underlay applied to the refurbished rafters. The whole roof awaits the addition of Welsh slate, both reused originals and some replacements, and of course the final flashing and guttering.
It is fantastic to see these Victorian buildings being restored, giving them a new lease of life and paving the way to much greater, safer, more weatherproof uses in future.
The Friends and regular volunteers are a busy bunch and between shovels and barrows and some honest toil, took the chance to reflect on the progress of the Friends over the past year.
From site discoveries and new visitors, to some research breakthroughs and community events, the Friends have started as they mean to proceed and are very pleased to be able to thank the generous support of the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, enabled by the Heritage Lottery Fund; Subterranea Britannica, and the Association for Industrial Archaeology for providing the necessary funds to save the heritage winding house from further decay.
The roof restoration helps stabilise the key buildings on site, and working together with our friends at Elsecar Heritage Railway, and local authority partners, we hope to play our full part in bringing new life to the valley, as well as recognising and safeguarding its remarkable heritage and historical assets.
Every open day brings different discoveries, new and intriguing, and this one was no different. The Friends were delighted to receive a number of visitors during the day, and especially a return visit by a former Elsecar local, once a staff trainer for the National Coal Board, and who had accompanied George Beedan in trips underground in the 1980s. Saturday’s visit brought postcards, photographs and – vitally – recollections of the working life of the pumping station, the winding cage, and working underground, including the footrill adit entrance to Elsecar New Colliery.
These memories and photographs are essential to aid our understanding of the operation of the site throughout is working life. Equally, the first-hand stories of the people and processes are unique and the Friends hope to record and preserve such insights.
Most intriguingly, a previously unseen F.R. Haigh postcard of the colliery was shown to the Friends, and it has already transformed our understanding of the pit yard layout, the 1897 surface haulage engine house, and peripheral buildings. It also finally allows us to explain what we see in the 1901 Ordnance Survey map of the colliery, compared to later mapping and photographs which is a very exciting development. These new details will also go directly to inform the virtual reality model of the colliery which is being developed by Iain Nicholls, an accomplished local artist from Darfield.
Remembering the Oaks
The weekend also saw the beginning of a series of commemorative events remembering England’s most serious mining disaster, the 150th Anniversary of the Oaks Colliery Disaster in December 1866 which claimed over 360 lives in a series of gas explosions deep underground at the Oaks Colliery in Barnsley. We cover the commemorative events and interesting new exhibition in Barnsley in a separate post, but the events of 1866 remind us all of the ever-present danger in coal mining, and the price paid in the development of new safety technologies and better regulation of mines as the Victorian period gave way to the Twentieth Century.
The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Hopes for the Future.
As the open days and working party weekends draw to a close this year, the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery would like to take the opportunity to wish all of our volunteers, partners and supporters a very Merry Christmas, and all the best for a very Happy New Year in 2017.
In a seasonal glimpse into a very different and rather more paternalist past, we find the above letter sent from Mr Herbert Danby, Managing Director of Earl Fitzwilliam’s Collieries Company. It refers to the “Christmas Gift” – a load of coal – a custom for the employees of the collieries who were often also tenants on the Earl’s estate. This letter marks a turning point in that relationship: the transition from private to public ownership.
As 1946 ended and 1947 began, the 1st of January became “Vesting Day”, the start of the nationalised coal industry. Within a year of that date the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, named in the letter, had died in a tragic aeroplane crash. Just over thirty years later the 10th Earl would also pass away, and with him the Fitzwilliam title itself. The Earl’s former colliery, Elsecar Main, closed a few years later in 1983 and just over a decade later in 1994, the coal industry was finally de-nationalised. Seventy years on from 1946, almost no British coal industry remains: the last deep coal mine at Kellingley was closed in December 2015.
Nevertheless, the end of the 2016 and start of 2017 sees new life being brought into the area; new activities at the Earl’s Workshops at Elsecar; further developments on the Elsecar Heritage Railway and, a new lease of life for the Earl’s former home, Wentworth Woodhouse, soon to be safely in the care of Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, which includes the 8th Earl’s daughter and the heirs of the 10th Earl.
We move into the next chapter of this area’s life, post-coal, post-paternalist, but keenly aware of its past, and proud to harness its heritage assets to build a successful future for local people. The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery are eager to play their own part in this story, and look forward to an exciting year ahead.